Fallen Airman Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers has the grim honor of being the first to be filmed coming home – now that the Obama administration has lifted an 18-year ban on news coverage of the returning war dead at Dover Air Force Base.
Staff Sgt. Myers' family gave their permission for the media to record the silent, solemn ceremony. A six-man carry team lifts the fallen man or woman's transfer case of remains from the plane to a waiting vehicle. The remains go through a formal autopsy and identification process, and are then sent onward, with an officer escorting them on the journey, for final honors and the funeral.
Staff Sgt. Myers was from Hopewell, Va. The 30 year old had been decorated for outstanding service as a military technician, and he'd been awarded a Bronze Star last year, for a previous tour in Iraq.
Now his return to the United States will be marked, noted and remembered in a way few casualties are of late, in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, that have extended far beyond the U.S. public's average attention span - or the U.S. media's, for that matter. We all share the blame in that. Dover Air Force press officers have been besieged with phone calls from the press, for the "first one."
But that blazing attention will quickly fade.
What defense officials are worried about is not this week, but the next, and the one after that—the fifth, eighth, and thirtieth casualty to return to Dover Air Force Base. With the ban lifted, each family of a fallen soldier, sailor, airman or Marine will now be asked whether they will allow media coverage of their loved one's return. If a family says yes, they may then feel pressure that they, too, must journey across the United States to that remote airbase in Delaware, so that when the cameras are rolling, and their loved one is carried off the plane by fellow troops—that they too must be there to witness that painful moment when the remains first reach American soil.
The family's ordeal won't end there. The autopsy and identification procedures can take one to several days, and only one family member can fit on the jets that take fallen troops home, together with the officer that escorts each set of remains. That means the rest of the family has to decide whether to sit around in Dover and wait, or head back separately.
So what happens when the family members say yes to coverage, and make this long journey, leaving behind the support of family and friends so they can be there when the cameras record their loved ones' return … and the media doesn't show? Picture it – they're huddled together on a windy tarmac, next to a C17 or 747, waiting as a cargo loader lowers the panel carrying the transfer cases, and they turn to look at the media rope line … and not a single reporter is there?
"That will be heartbreaking," one senior officer told us, as we were going over details of how to cover this.
It will quickly happen. Most of our bureaus are in Washington, D.C. It's a two-hour drive, and most arrivals, defense officials tell us, seem to happen between 9 p.m. and midnight. Our bureau chiefs will have to make that awful economic calculation on whether it's worth the drive, and the crew overtime, to trek north to film. We, the correspondents and producers, will have to advise them, by doing some horribly grim calculations of our own: trying to match up the latest casualty notice from Afghanistan or Iraq, with the media-granted-permission notices from Dover, to see which death is "newsworthy."
The Defense Department has already come up with one solution to this. They'll have their own camera team there, recording every arrival. They say they won't hand that video out to us, the reporters, who didn't bother to show up. They'll hand it to the families, who put their own grief on hold to make a long, painful journey, showing up for that first moment their loved one comes back home.
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